Review: Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Bitterblue Kristin CashoreBitterblue by Kristin Cashore (Graceling Realm #3)

Genre: Fantasy, YA

Publisher: Dial on May 1, 2012

Source: Purchased

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Eight years have passed since the young Princess Bitterblue, and her country, were saved from the vicious King Leck. Now Bitterblue is the queen of Monsea, and her land is at peace.

But the influence of her father, a violent psychopath with mind-altering abilities, lives on. Her advisers, who have run the country on her behalf since Leck’s death, believe in a forward-thinking plan: to pardon all of those who committed terrible acts during Leck’s reign; and to forget every dark event that ever happened. Monsea’s past has become shrouded in mystery, and it’s only when Bitterblue begins sneaking out of her castle – curious, disguised and alone – to walk the streets of her own city, that she begins to realise the truth. Her kingdom has been under the thirty-five-year long spell of a madman, and now their only chance to move forward is to revisit the past.

Whatever that past holds.

Two thieves, who have sworn only to steal what has already been stolen, change her life forever. They hold a key to the truth of Leck’s reign. And one of them, who possesses an unidentified Grace, may also hold a key to her heart . . .

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Trigger warning: Although they are not large components of the story, BITTERBLUE deals with suicide and references to torture and rape.

BITTERBLUE is the bridge connecting the stories and characters in GRACELING and FIRE, or maybe it’s more accurate to say that Bitterblue’s father Leck is the villain who ties the stories together.

Those of you who’ve read the series will remember that Leck was a graceling with a very disturbing gift: the ability to alter people’s minds. During his reign Leck made people commit unspeakable crimes, and his sadism truly knew no bounds. When Leck’s daughter Bitterblue becomes the monarch of Monsea after his death, it is the legacy of the trauma he inflicted that will inform not only her reign but also her life.

Unlike the rest of the series, BITTERBLUE is not plot-driven. Rather, it’s driven by young queen Bitterblue’s search for the truth – the truth of her father and his atrocities, the truth of her city, and the truth of herself. But not everyone wants to remember the trauma of the past, and there are those who will stop at nothing to derail her mission. People who are closer to her than she ever could have imagined.

There are some incredibly dark topics and scenes in BITTERBLUE, but Kristin Cashore handles them with grace and skill. Cashore acknowledges that trauma and coping mechanisms are different for everyone, and doesn’t privilege the need to remember the trauma over the need to forget. Although Bitterblue needs to know the truth of what Leck made people do and think many people want to pretend that his reign never happened. It’s too painful for them to know what they did under his influence.

Actually, the way that Bitterblue and her friends grapple with trauma reminded me a lot of Nelson Mandela’s commitment to reconciliation and forgiveness in the wake of Apartheid. She establishes a Truth Ministry where people can go to record testimonials of their experiences under Leck’s rule, and people can go there to learn more about what was really going on during his thirty years of abuse. But others can choose not to go to the ministry, and Cashore is careful to note that the choice not to remember is no less valid.

BITTERBLUE is one of the only SFF novels I’ve ever read that explicitly deals with the impact of traumatic events on someone’s mental health. For many, remembering the atrocities that Leck compelled them to commit – and forced them to enjoy with his Grace – is too much to bear. Depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and suicide are all present and immediate concerns for the Monsean people. In concert with the Ministry of Truth, Bitterblue establishes a Ministry of Mental Well-Being to give people the support they need in dealing with their poor mental health. While a lot of truly horrible things happen to characters in SFF, I’ve often found that there’s no discussion of how to deal with those things. Characters in most of those books tend to choke it down and repress it to keep moving forward; while Cashore doesn’t disparage that as an option, her willingness to explicitly discuss alternative strategies like counseling really impressed me.

Just rulership – especially just monarchy – is of paramount concern for Bitterblue, who rightly feels that her advisors’ attempts to protect her from Leck’s legacy have left her ignorant of her people. How can she be a righteous queen if she is unaware of the needs of her people? As the most privileged person in all of Monsea, can Bitterblue ever truly understand what it’s like to feel powerless? BITTERBLUE poses a lot of uncomfortable questions, and puzzling through my responses to them was both difficult and rewarding. This is YA fantasy that will make you think!

While I found BITTERBLUE engrossing and compelling, some of my friends thought it was slow moving and a little boring. As always, your mileage will vary. But whether you enjoy more cerebral books or not, BITTERBLUE is a must-read for every Kristin Cashore fan.

If only she’d write another book!

Have you completed the Graceling Realm trilogy? Which book was your favourite? What are some other thoughtful YA fantasy series I should check out? Let me know in the comments!

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  • I have heard that Bitterblue is the best book of the series. Given its themes, I can see why. Glad it paid off! I’ve read Graceling but not the second book of the trilogy yet 🙂

    ~Mogsy

    • I think Fire is actually my favourite, but it’s a close contest between Fire and Bitterblue to be honest. Definitely a series worth finishing – I actually thought Graceling was the weakest book in the trilogy, which is saying something because it’s a damn good book!

  • Maraia

    I really need to read this one again. It’s on my “favorites” shelf, although I still consider Fire my overall favorite. I’d forgotten how deep it is. I’ll have to see if I can think of any other fantasies along the same lines. Great review!

    • It’s SO deep! I was kinda shell-shocked after I’d finished reading it, honestly. I would love to read more fantasy that grapples with mental health issues – maybe one day Kristin Cashore will write another book that does so. Thanks, Maraia! 🙂

      • Maraia

        I’m still thinking, but I haven’t come up with any others yet. I did just listen to Fire once again, and every time I’m amazed at how much I love it. Fire and Brigan are one of my all-time favorite ships. Unfortunately, I can’t find the audiobook of Bitterblue at any library.

        • Maraia

          Oh! I just thought of one. The Lumatere Chronicles by Melina Marchetta does deal with mental health. Have you read anything by her yet?

  • I read this series a while back now and I really enjoyed it, but I do admit this book was my least favourite of the series. I liked the fact it looked at the impact that Leck’s abilities had on the population, but I didn’t really get what the actual plot of the book was. I enjoy looking at the impact on characters and looking at the aftermath of a book like Graceling and seeing the recovery in the city. I mean, I’m one of those people who watches action films and thinks ‘who is going to pay for all that destruction?’ after the explosions and wanders about the clean up for all the action, so it appealed to me for that, but like I said, the plot definitely wasn’t as strong as the other books.

    I know my favourite book of the series was Fire because I just loved that world on the other side of the mountains, so you can imagine my small shout of joy when the character turned up in Bitterblue.

    Great review, I am now considering a series reread 🙂

    • From what I can tell, people either loved Bitterblue or really disliked it. Haha that’s a fair criticism of the plot, it’s pretty minor to be perfectly frank. I’d say the major plot is Bitterblue finding out what her advisors are hiding from her – but that’s connected to all the subplots too, so everything kind of bleeds together.

      YES, I’m the same way! Who’s going to pay for all these broken windows?! The hospitals are going to be busy this weekend!

      Yup, Fire is my favourite too. I tend to be an emotional reader but damn, that book really affected me. The world building was beautiful and Fire’s relationship with her father was intense (all of her relationships are, really).

      I will keep an eye out for your potential re-read, Becky! 🙂